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Officials: No hard evidence in nerve agent report

From John King

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials are downplaying a report that indicated Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq with ties to al Qaeda had obtained a deadly poison for possible use in terrorist attacks, senior administration officials tell CNN.

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No corroboration of this intelligence report from around late October or early November has been found, and neither has any evidence of involvement by the Iraqi government, these officials said.

One senior official described a report in The Washington Post on Thursday suggesting al Qaeda or a group closely affiliated with al Qaeda had obtained the nerve agent VX from Iraq as "far too conclusive sounding," and said the U.S. government had no hard evidence of such a transaction.

This official said there was "a report" on the possibility of such a transaction that was of concern -- but that like many pieces of information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies about possible terrorist activities, it had not been corroborated.

"Some of this stuff turns out to be right and a lot of it turns out to be wrong or exaggerated or wishful thinking on the part of those doing the talking," this senior official said.

A second official said "absolutely no new intelligence" exists about any possible cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda and said the Post account "makes quantum leaps based on speculation and opinion that itself is based on information we are not even certain is true."

This official said the uncorroborated information obtained by U.S. intelligence sources about six weeks ago suggested "that Islamic fundamentalists operating in Iraq who are known to have some affiliation with al Qaeda might have obtained a poisonous substance" that could be used in terrorist attacks.

This official said some intelligence analysts have speculated it could be the deadly nerve agent VX, which the United States has accused Iraq of possessing. "The people I trust say 'stay away from any talk of nerve agents' because there is zero confirmation or evidence."

This official said if there were credible information al Qaeda had obtained a chemical agent and the means to deliver it, then that information would have been passed on to law enforcement agencies. But no such alert has been issued, nor has there been any consideration of raising the nation's terrorist threat alert level, this official said.

Another intelligence official also said U.S. intelligence has no information that this fundamentalist group has ever had any access to VX gas, and has no reliable evidence -- strong or weak -- suggesting the Iraqi regime was involved in any transfer of a weapon of mass destruction to this al Qaeda-affiliated group.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe also said the administration did "not have any hard, concrete evidence" that al Qaeda has obtained chemical weapons.

He said there was "no specific intelligence that limits al Qaeda's interest to one particular chemical or biological weapon over the other."

CIA Director George Tenet, for his part, warned in a speech Wednesday night that al Qaeda is actively planning new attacks on the United States and its interests.

The Post report said intelligence analysts suspected a Lebanese group with ties to al Qaeda had possibly obtained the deadly VX nerve agent from Iraq and transported it through Turkey.

Johndroe said the administration did not give out details of information obtained in intelligence reports circulated among various U.S. agencies.

The senior official who spoke to CNN, however, said the administration had no proof of such a transaction. Speaking more broadly on whether there is cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda, this official said it remained an issue of significant concern to the administration but also acknowledged disagreements within the intelligence community on the level of any such communication or cooperation.

Congressional sources who receive high-level intelligence briefings from the administration have, on several occasions in recent months, said they have received no information to support allegations that Iraq has a working relationship with al Qaeda.

The VX agent is of particular concern because it is many times more toxic than the sarin gas that killed 12 and injured 5,500 people when it was released in a Tokyo subway station in 1995.

Unlike sarin, VX isn't a poison gas. Tiny amounts, if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, can kill within minutes.

VX attacks the nervous system, first causing sweating, drooling and a runny nose. Moments later, a person has convulsions and seizures. The nerve agent paralyzes the muscles of the victim, causing death.

CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.

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